Punishment does not earn rewards or cooperation, study finds

Individuals who engage in costly punishment do not benefit from their behavior, according to a new study published this week in the journal Nature by researchers at Harvard University and the Stockholm School of Economics.

The group, led by Martin A. Nowak of Harvard's Program for Evolutionary Dynamics, Department of Mathematics, and Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, examined cooperation among subjects playing a modified version of the Prisoner's Dilemma. This game captures the fundamental tension between the interests of the individual and the group, and is the classic paradigm for cooperation. The study found that the use of punitive behavior correlates strongly with reduced individual payoff, and bestows no benefit on the group as a whole.

"Put simply, winners don’t punish," says co-author David G. Rand of Harvard's Program for Evolutionary Dynamics and Department of Systems Biology. "Punishment can lead to a downward spiral of retaliation, with destructive outcomes for everybody involved. The people with the highest total payoffs do not use costly punishment."

"Costly punishment," the type of punitive behavior studied by Nowak and his colleagues, refers to situations where a punisher is willing to incur a cost in order to penalize someone else. Other researchers have suggested that costly punishment can compel cooperation in one-time interactions where individuals need not worry about reputation or retaliation -- a scenario Nowak and his colleagues found unrealistic, since, as they write, "most of our interactions are repeated and reputation is always at stake."

"There's been a lot of previous work on the use of punishment in cooperation games, but the focus has not been on situations where individuals use punishment in the context of ongoing interactions," says co-author Anna Dreber of the Stockholm School of Economics and the Program for Evolutionary Dynamics at Harvard. "We make the setting more realistic by having subjects play repeated games and introducing costly punishment as one of several options."

Dreber, Rand, Nowak, and Drew Fudenberg of Harvard's Department of Economics recruited 104 Boston-area college students to participate in a computer-based Prisoner's Dilemma game that was extended to include costly punishment alongside the usual options of cooperation and defection. Pairs of students played the game repeatedly so the interaction between costly punishment and reciprocity could be assessed.

The result: There is a strong negative correlation between individual payoff and the use of costly punishment. The five top-ranked players never used costly punishment, while players who earned the lowest payoffs tended to punish most often. Winners used a tit-for-tat like strategy while losers used costly punishment. Furthermore, costly punishment did not increase the average payoff of the group.

The study shows that punishment is not an effective force for promoting cooperation. The unfortunate tendency of humans to engage in acts of costly punishment must have evolved for other reasons such as establishing dominance hierarchy and defending ownership, but not to promote cooperation. In cooperation games, costly punishment is a detrimental and self-destructive behavior.

"Punishment may be a tool for forcing another person to do what you want," Dreber says. "It might have been for those kinds of dominance situations that the use of punishment has evolved."

"Our finding has a very positive message: In an extremely competitive setting, the winners are those who resist the temptation to escalate conflicts, while the losers punish and perish," concludes Nowak.

Source: Harvard University

Explore further

The enemy of my friend: Altruistic punishment in humans called into question

Citation: Punishment does not earn rewards or cooperation, study finds (2008, March 19) retrieved 16 January 2019 from https://medicalxpress.com/news/2008-03-rewards-cooperation.html
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.

Feedback to editors

User comments

Mar 19, 2008
First off, the link to the PD game is broken, the correct address is: http://www.prince.../PD.html

Forgot (or was edited out) the ~.

Secondly, I would be more interested in seeing the results from a real life situation versus a situation with fixed parameters.

Understandably, punishment doesn't make people very happy. Unhappy people don't perform to the full capabilities (generally).

Mar 19, 2008
Punishment works for a Sadist, only.

Not even a dictator can arrive at a
positive or beneficial long-term outcome
using punishment.

The best that can be said for punishment
is it provides a short-term emotional
reward for those seeking revenge; also
know as justice.

Did anyone measure players winnings in
terms of playing satisfaction. After all,
coming out ahead is not always about the

It seems that only by secondarily
cooperating to make it plausible that one
will cooperate again, yet predominately
not cooperating by defecting can one come
out ahead in this game. You know the
persons who always smiles happily when
you can see them yet always looks for a
way to advance their desires.

Life is not reduced to two options unless
one is clinically depressed.

In this game, there is no option to
violate rules. Someone willing to use
punishment is likely to find in real life
a reason to violate rules to ensure they
come out ahead.

The "nice" one, in real life, who does not violate spoken or written rules, respects
others choices and and does not punish or
defect will not come out ahead.

Apr 24, 2008
Punishment isn't motivated by a desire for a better world, or for more-happiness, or for increasing wealth among our team, it is motivated by authority-greed.

Why should any of this surprise?

Punishing another asserts primarily that the other's validity *isn't*, and one's authority *IS*.

Its resulting in reduced performance/wealth is irrelevant to the primary-want, the want to beat-on others, or to be the Authority.

Really, seeing *why* others do things that offend one shows one that the problem is often different values, miscommunication, or addiction, or ignorance, or something.

Correcting the problem can include aversion-therapy, but that *isn't* motivated by authority, it's motivated by correction.

( which is what our authority/enforcement mechanism *claims* it is doing, but it produces /mean/ non-functional-in-society individuals, so its actions don't match its words: I'm trusting its actions to show its true-nature... )


People can ignore the obvious, or work-with-it to produce effective improvement, it's their world/choice...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more